Looking back at the past to protect Fylde’s future

Local historian Ted Lightbown in the Winter Gardens
Local historian Ted Lightbown in the Winter Gardens
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The Gazette talks to the secretary of the Blackpool & Fylde Historical Society about his love for the resort

Most of us are probably wondering what 2016 holds in store but if it’s something that’s already happened that interests you then Ted Lightbown should be your go-to man.

He’s the secretary of the Blackpool and Fylde Historical Society, joint archivist with his wife Ann of the Blackpool Entertainment Company Ltd, organises the Pleasure Beach archives on a part time basis and has published a clutch of retro books about the resort.

He was born in Preston in 1943. His civil servant father moved the family to Fleetwood in 1949 and then onto Blackpool five years later to be near the then St Joseph’s RC School.

“I like to think of myself a citizen of the Fylde coast rather than just Blackpool,” says Ted. “If I go out of the Fylde I think I’m in foreign climes, we mainly just travel up and down the coast.”

When he failed his GCSE’s “my dad said the best thing I could do was go into the civil service,” so he joined the Premium Bonds and remained with them until he took early retirement at 51.

“I had one promotion in that time and thought what’s the point in sticking around here - and I’ve been busier since I retired.”

Part of that busy-ness has been the 20-plus year project of restoration and expansion of the couples’ gem of an ancient cottage in the heart of old Layton. And there’s no end in sight.

He joined the Blackpool and Fylde Historical Society in 1976 but prior to that his local history interest goes back to the late 60s.

“One of my passions is decorative art, I became interested in art nouveau in the late 60s and then from that by the early 70s I’d become obsessed with art deco,” he says. “It eventually dawned on me that I was living in a town that was full of art deco buildings.

“I think what it was though, in those days way before the internet and Facebook, people used to go to night school classes and Workers’ Education Association (WEA) classes and there was one by the late Tom Stringer which was mainly then and now photos - but I realised that the town had changed a lot and even on particular sites there might have been two or three different buildings so that change began to interest me.

“I’ve always been interested in the visual aspects of local history. It’s a big subject of course, people approach it from different angles, some do it from family history and local families, but I’ve always been interested in the architecture and the fact that it has changed and that it does change.”

He was introduced to the historical society by a friend’s father. It was founded in 1935 and is one of the longest running groups in Blackpool.

“I got to know quite a few local historians,” he says. “There seemed to be more of them around in those days than there are now, people with a deep knowledge.”

He became its secretary in 1982 and by then it had already started putting on exhibitions of various villages around Blackpool.

Layton was the first in 1980, followed by Bispham and Marton and accompanied by booklets produced by members. Then came a memorable millennium exhibition, two volumes of postcard books with Allan W. Wood followed by Blackpool: A Pictorial History.

Because of the interest they sparked he was asked in 2002 if he wanted to be the archivist for what was then Leisure Parks.

“It was essentially the Tower and Winter Gardens collections and at the time the three piers,” he says. “The previous incumbent had left it all in quite a mess. He’d become involved making it a central archive for the whole of Leisure Parks throughout the country but it left us with a problem which still isn’t sorted out properly. That’s when I realised it needed more than one of us to do it so I persuaded Winter Gardens boss Michael Williams to interview Ann and she’s more or less taken over.

“It’s the price of freedom. After 35 years in the civil service I’d sooner do it for nothing if it means I can come and go as I please. Ann is very conscientious - she wants to head off every day to do it.”

He has been involved with the Pleasure Beach archives from about 1997 but these days only every couple of weeks –“what with the cottage plans I haven’t got the same time or energy these days.”

But he’s pleased with the current interest in local history

“I think particularly people are more aware of the Winter Gardens now but they had taken it for granted for so many years. It’s a wonderful building and I’m really glad the council did buy it.

“It’s very important we keep that of all things. There has been a perception in the town that it’s an empty shell but every time you go there you discover all sorts of things are happening. It’s my favourite Blackpool building and there are still parts of it I probably haven’t been in.”

But he challenges peoples’ perception of the town on another front too.

“It’s not so long ago that if you talked about Blackpool’s heritage it was always with the adjective “Victorian” put on but I’ve always thought Blackpool more than anything reflected the inter war period.

“Amongst the great art deco buildings we had or still have there was one particular architect, the borough architect, J.C. Robinson, who took up his post in 1920 and was essentially responsible for all the council’s inter war buildings.

“Blackpool really did build its way out of the depression. He designed all the schools, South Shore open air baths, Derby baths, Stanley Park café, Stanley buildings and the municipal buildings. It’s a long list and he was a particularly good architect. I made a particular study of his buildings and like to think I revived his memory a little bit.”

For a town of its size there’s still a lot to be proud of, he says.

“I think too much was made when trying to bid for World Heritage Status that Blackpool was the first working class resort. It may well have been but to my mind it was a little bit ethereal. I think if they’d made abid for it on the basis of three buildings - the Winter Gardens, The Tower and the Grand Theatre – and their place in entertainment history there would have been something more concrete to go for.”

As for mistakes, the demolition of Derby Baths is right up there at the top of the list.

“I couldn’t believe it and I think people generally now acknowledge that it was a mistake.”

Likewise the loss of the Palace Theatre - but in that case something from the Tower Company portfolio had to go.

“I mourn its passing but there was an over capacity in theatres so what would have gone instead – perhaps the Winter Gardens?”

But the Derby Baths?

“I think they could have converted it to some other use, I think it was highly political at the time. The Little Vic pub (on Victoria Street) was another sad one but unfortunately it lost its bell tower a couple of years before it came to trying to have it preserved so there wasn’t enough of it left. But it was a little gem.”

So would he come here to visit or live?

“When you’ve lived here so long it’s difficult to see it as others see it. A lot of people do love Blackpool and we know that. I like living here because it’s a very interesting place to live. It’s an interesting place to be a local historian - though sometimes I think I might have been happier being a village historian.

“I’m not sure that I like being called on by the BBC or having a microphone stuck in front of me. I’d sooner delve away at the earlier history really. In a way it’s more interesting to look at the medieval times or post medieval times because it’s so tantalising and the evidence is so sparse,” he says. “Yet people were here in those days.”

Even so he’s doubtful about the alleged Roman road in the Fylde and debunks it along with urban myths such as the rumoured tunnel from the Winter Gardens (“probably just a basement trip”) and the theory that the Tower’s foundations are bales of cotton (“probably cotton merchants putting money into the town”).

So that’s how metaphors become folklore?

But with the likes of Facebook and Instagram replacing postcards and prints what will future historians look at?

“People on Facebook talking about the ‘old days’ mean the nightclubs from 1960s and 1970s so history moves on. Perhaps when I joined the historical society in the 70s some members wondered why I was projecting slides of buildings they remember going up in the 30s.

“People used to recall meeting their partners in the ballrooms, now it’s nightclubs.

“There was a lot of upset at the loss of the Syndidate but you don’t lose the history of the place, the history will always be there.”

He’s critical that “local history is being repackaged and relabelled as heritage.”

He feels “people use the words history and heritage together but they are different things. You could have an old building that might be part of our heritage, but if it’s demolished it’s consigned to history. Hopefully you are not losing the historical record, but the heritage aspect has gone.”

So how hurtful is it when somewhere is demolished?

“It depends what it is. It didn’t bother me at all about The Syndicate because so much of it went years ago. The original Hippodrome went in the early 1960s when they converted it into the ABC. There was a lot of Facebook fuss but there was little left of architectural merit.”

As for Blackpool’s sometimes battered image he says: “There’s the perception that it’s tacky and like any town or city there are tacky parts but I think there’s some snobbery attached to the knocking. Is it a class thing or is it a victim of its own success?

“Some other resorts must be envious about the publicity we get. All right, some of it is negative but there’s a lot that is positive, just straight publicity – you rarely hear of Margate or Bridlington on television. But Blackpool’s always on the screens.”

And it’s always on his mind as he specialises in restoring old photographs.

“Taking something that is really faint and faded and really enhancing it, spending hours getting rid of the blemishes, you can get some surprising results and feel as though you are bringing a bit of Blackpool history back to life.”